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May 4, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

The GM Starter Pack

by Gary Huckabay

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

At the request of reader Jim, we revisit Gary's list of books that every GM should read—in addition to all the BP books published subsequently, of course—which originally ran as a "6-4-3" column on September 5th, 2003.

One of the best things about being involved with BP is the people you meet. Since we started doing Pizza Feeds a couple of years back, I've been fortunate enough to meet several hundred people who trudge their way to a Feed, all of whom have an intense interest in baseball, and all of whom are very generous with their time and support. It's pretty common for people to hang out and talk after the main event's over. Sometimes, someone will have an in-depth topic they want a long answer on, or they want to talk about available positions with BP or in a front office, or they want to argue with me about Derek Jeter's defense.

The most common question I get after the end of the feed is about books. Some recurring themes come up during the evening, and one of them is often: "What skills does a general manager really need?" The question that inevitably follows is: "What books do you think a GM should read when they first get the job?" It's a good question, so I thought I'd make some suggestions here. I'm going to stay away from baseball books, including our own, and focus instead on the first books anyone should they read if they're going to be serious about their business. Many of these books are applicable to a number of industries, but I believe they're particularly relevant to running a major league club. So, in no particular order:

  • How We Know What Isn't So, by Thomas Gilovich.

    One of the seminal books on reason, judgment, and the art and science of decision making. Gilovich does a tremendous job of simplifying a number of complicated and important concepts. There are object lessons on the types of behaviors and decision making processes that GMs have to avoid if they want to be successful. A GM who was looking to maximize his gain in an individual deal or two might use some of the information in here to take advantage of less enlightened counterparts. This would be a great book to give to a kid just starting high school as well.

  • The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod.

    Probably the most famous book in the field of game theory, and a must for anyone whose career is going to depend on interactions with other people (yes, that pretty much means everyone). The core of Axelrod's text is about the "Prisoner's Dilemma," and strategies that can be used therein to maximize one's gain. It's pretty specific, but the mode of thinking and the implications of the simple scenarios are profound. Axelrod is able to take material that, at its core, is pretty dry, and write a compelling book around it. The scary thing about this book is that it can pull you into reading more stuff about game theory, and when that happens, any potential you ever had to be a chick magnet is pretty much gone.

  • The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, by Daniel Yergin.

    Yergin's amazing work won the non-fiction Pulitzer in 1992. It's an overview of this oil business and how it's developed over time. The mechanics of successful strategic maneuvers are laid out in instructive and compelling detail. The machinations of the industry as a whole, and how disparate entities that are both in competition with each other and have shared interests are particularly relevant to MLB.

  • Statistics for Business and Economics, McClave, Sincich, and Benson.

    Yes, it's a textbook. But it's a good one, and it assumes that the reader is a somewhat lazy student who doesn't want to go back to his calculus (or at least Elementary Functions) notes and review their notes. Covers the basics from a first semester and a half of statistics--probability theory, hypothesis testing, some non-parametrics, ANOVAs and basic regressions. The examples are solid, it's organized well, and a dedicated reader can learn enough to defend themselves against someone who's armed with data and presentation materials to pursue an agenda. Hey, numbers are weapons, and either you can use them or you can't. No GM should be unarmed.

    Oh...and like all textbooks, it's absurdly overpriced. Jeez. I thought those things were outrageous when I was in school. $110?

  • The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli.

    A hackneyed choice? Yes, but an essential one, and certainly better than Sun Tzu's The Art of War. What are the parallels between the Florentine empire and a typical front office in MLB? More than most teams would care to admit. Yes, it's become something of a cliché, and few people that actually get to the GM position don't already know most of what's here, but in terms of learning the real world tactics to survive and operate effectively in a leadership position, there is still no substitute. Might not be a bad starting point from which to dive into the other books; after all, 'A Prince who is not wise himself cannot be wisely advised.'

  • An Economic Theory of Democracy, by Anthony Downs.

    Why is a core work of modern political science here? Because Downs' median voter theory is essential to anyone who'll ever have to balance opinion in their work. The instructive and relevant portions of Downs' thesis are on positioning and choices within the framework of keeping enough people happy to keep your job. The modern MLB GM has to do this, but he has to do it as much by educating and moving the positions of the various "voters" as by making decisions to keep them happy. You may be the smartest and most effective baseball savant ever to walk the face of the earth, but if you don't keep the owner, fans, and people within the office on your side, you'll be out the door.

  • Percentage Baseball, by Earnshaw Cook.

    Before there was Bill James, (but after there was Branch Rickey), there was Earnshaw Cook. Percentage Baseball deserves far more attention than it's ever received, and some smart publisher could take advantage of the doors broken open by recent publication to reprint this sucker. (I'm nothing if not subtle.) Cook lays out the basics of baseball analysis. Just like Malcolm Young and Keith Richards got rich stealing from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and a bunch of other underpaid black guys, many of us have benefited from reworking and updating the ideas first introduced by Earnshaw Cook (and George Lindsey).

There are countless great books that can help people better understand leadership, decision making, and the essential components of running a business. But for an MLB GM, this would be what I'd put in the starter pack.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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